Why I’ll never be a Master Explicator.

When I started teaching I was assigned a course that extended far far beyond my area of expertise and, although it made me quite nervous at the time, I created an extremely dynamic and engaged classroom by puzzling through the material alongside my students. During that first semester I felt like I was failing because I wasn’t anywhere near what Ranciere calls a “Master Explicator”, full of information that I could deliver in lecture form. Yet, by the time I had somewhat of a grasp on that material (a grasp gained through my student’s insights as much as through textbooks or scholarly research), I realized that I had been wrong to feel like I was failing. I realized that my students got much more out of the class if I facilitated their understanding rather then relayed my own knowledge. Now I purposefully shift the course material every semester so that I can recreate a dynamic where we are all learning together. I see myself as a facilitator: I give my students tools and provide frames within which they can test and grow those tools. As a facilitator of art history, I help my students build analytical skills and give them terms and resources for writing about and discussing art. I present them with artworks, texts, and historic contexts, but they do the analysis themselves. I also strive to create frames that allow my students to connect history to the present, to flip the critical analysis that we are doing in the classroom onto their present-day surroundings.

This is never a perfect process. Last week, for example, I brought in way too much new content for my students to work through. Furthermore, this class structure can be frustrating for students who are used to the Master Explicator model of education where the teachers transmit knowledge to passive students, and, conversely, I could definitely do more to give students the power to determine the path and frames of the class. I am still learning how to teach and have realized that I will never stop learning. I teach because I want to empower my students and because I believe this kind of art history, an art history that looks outward to the present world, provides crucial critical and creative thinking skills for our media-saturated environment. But I also teach for selfish reasons: I learn so much about both my discipline and about human connection in general from the classroom environment, plus, I love the high that I feel after a great class. On my best teaching days, the ones where I leave class feeling exhilarated and exhausted by the level of engaging and surprising discussion, I often find myself thinking about a question posed by Felix Guattari in Chaosmosis, 1992: “How do you bring a classroom to life as though it were an artwork?” For Guattari this question is a philosophical one, but for me, a great class always feels like an artwork. Not because I construct it myself, but because I provide a little bit of structure and then partake as it unfolds in rich and often unexpected ways.